By Pat Anson, Editor
Imagine getting an unexpected medical bill for over $1,500 that your insurance won’t cover. You can’t afford to pay it, have already missed several weeks of work due to chronic back pain, and you’re worried about losing your job.
That’s the dilemma faced by a Montana woman, one of the patients at a Great Falls pain clinic who are getting unusually large bills for urine drug testing at a laboratory over 2,000 miles away in Georgia.
“I spoke to my insurance about it and they told me that there are labs in Montana that could have done the same thing and would have been covered by my insurance. She asked me, why they would go to a Georgia lab?” said the patient, who asked that we not reveal her identity.
The lab in question is Confirmatrix Laboratory, a financially troubled company near Atlanta that specializes in urine drug testing.
As PNN has reported, some current and former patients at the Benefis pain clinic believe they are being unfairly labeled and treated as addicts. Many are having their opioid doses reduced or stopped completely. All are required to take regular drug tests to prove they’re not abusing their pain medication.
“For the safety of our patients, regular urine drug screens are conducted to ensure the appropriate levels of prescribed medications, and only those medications, are present,” says Katrina Lewis, MD, a pain management specialist at Benefis. “Presence of too high of a level of opioids or other substances in the urine can make it inappropriate and unsafe to continue prescribing opioids. Presence of none of the prescribed opioids in the urine indicates the care plan is not being followed and further prescribing is medically unnecessary.”
Urine drug testing is not uncommon at pain clinics, but the selection of Confirmatrix is. The company was founded by Khalid Satary, a convicted felon and Palestinian national that the federal government has been trying to deport for years.
Satary was arrested in 2001 and served more than three years in federal prison after pleading guilty to running a counterfeit CD operation in the Atlanta area valued at $50 million. At the time, it was the largest counterfeit music case in U.S. history, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
Shortly after his release from prison, Satary founded Confirmatrix, Nue Medical Consulting and GNOS Medical, a medical billing firm, and then transferred his interests in the companies over to his son Jordan, a recent high school graduate.
The Journal Constitution reported in 2014 that Satary was subject to a federal deportation order, but immigration officials were unable to find a country willing to accept him. He still apparently lives in the U.S.
On November 2nd of last year, the FBI and the Georgia Department of Health and Human Services served search warrants at Confirmatrix and GNOS Medical, and agents removed documents from both facilities.
The agencies have not said what prompted the raids and no charges have been filed against either company.
Just two days after the search warrants were served, Confirmatrix filed for Chapter 11 federal bankruptcy protection, with Satary’s son Jordan the largest shareholder to sign the petition in the Northern District Court of Georgia. GNOS Medical is listed as one of the creditors that Confirmatrix owes money to.
“Although historically very profitable,” Confirmatrix CEO Ann Durham told the court the company “began experiencing financial troubles when recent changes to Medicare’s reimbursement rates resulted in a decrease (in) revenue from its toxicology business.”
Drug testing has indeed been a very profitable business for Confirmatrix and other drug labs. A 2013 study by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) listed Confirmatrix as the most expensive drug lab in the country, collecting an average of $2,406 from Medicare for each patient tested, compared to the national average of $751. The bills from Confirmatrix were high because the company ran an average of nearly 120 different drug screens on each patient, far more than any other drug lab.
These and other abusive billing practices, not only by Confirmatrix but other drug labs such as Millennium Health, finally caused Medicare to lower its reimbursement rates for drug testing.
Millennium filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2015, soon after paying a $256 million dollar fine to settle fraud and kickback charges, and to reimburse the government for unnecessary urine and genetic tests.
Under its Chapter 11 filing, Confirmatrix is still able to conduct business and perform lab tests, but it is exploring options for a possible sale of the company or a restructuring “to focus its operations on the blood testing business.”
The company said it has 152 employees in 15 different states, including one employee in Montana who apparently works at the Benefis pain clinic in Great Falls.
“They had a gal who was there every day, I assume working there full time, and she was responsible for collecting the samples, processing them, and shipping them off to the lab,” said Rodney Lutes, a physician assistant who was discharged by Benefis in March.
Benefis did not respond to inquiries from PNN about whether a Confirmatrix employee works at the pain clinic or if Benefis receives a commission or compensation from Confirmatrix for doing business with the company. According to clinic policy, patients on high doses of opioids "should have a minimum of one urine drug test every two months."
In a statement, a Benefis official said Confirmatrix performs a valuable service and “waives many costs.”
“The company we have partnered with has an extensive patient assistance program, which is part of the reason they were selected. That company was selected two years ago because it was one of the few labs nationwide that offered quantitative and qualitative testing AND patient assistant programs. This company does not send its patients to collections for an inability to pay a bill,” said Kathy Hill, Chief Operating Officer at Benefis Medical Group.
But some Benefis patients are getting letters from collection agencies demanding payment for Confirmatrix drug screens that cost well over $1,000, the same tests that Medicare is charged about $150 for under its new reimbursement rates. A call to Confirmatrix for comment was not returned.
Other patients say they are getting bills for drug tests they’ve already paid for, and that Benefis has lost some of their billing and medical records. Still other patients are surprised to learn they may be legally responsible for drug tests that their insurance company refused to pay for.
“Confirmatrix is out of network, hence I am stuck with the bill unless Benefis writes it off,” said one woman, a chronic pain sufferer for over 30 years, whose opioid dose was recently reduced substantially. “In the last 6 weeks I have been dropped to one third of the dosage I was on with intentions that I will be dropped even more. I have no desire to live, because this is not living.”
In April, a suicidal patient at Benefis Health System burned down his doctor's home and killed himself during a standoff with police. David Herron was not a patient at the Benefis pain clinic, but suffered from chronic back pain and apparently had a long-standing grievance with his doctor, an orthopedic surgeon.
The incident prompted Benefis to upgrade security procedures at its facilities, including training employees to handle active shooter situations, according to the Great Falls Tribune, which reported that "danger presents itself in the form of patients who are drug addicted looking for an early prescription."